It’s either a hilarious coincidence or an intentional and profound irony that the first line of this album is: “Don’t get any on you if you go to Nashville.” Certainly that is the concern when our favorite independent artists sign to a mainstream label; we’re all happy they got the recognition they deserved, but we’re hoping Nashville won’t change what made them cool artists in the first place. As bizarre as 2020 has been, it seems almost natural that this year brought about the wildly unusual development that Ray Wylie Hubbard would release an album on Big Machine. The seventy-three-year-old artist has long been deserving of more of an audience, but the alliance between Hubbard and the label that produced Thomas Rhett and Florida Georgia Line was one none of us saw coming. It’s not the first time Scott Borchetta has signed an unexpected artist, but this is no doubt the farthest into left field he has yet ventured, and the coolest thing about this partnership is that it has culminated in Co-Starring, a Ray Wylie album that is better and more infused with life than his recent records.
There’s an energy in these songs and in Hubbard himself that wasn’t as present on his last couple of albums. The hooks and melodies are more infectious, the material is generally more lighthearted, and the parade of cool artists who contributed to the album all did their part to enhance these tracks. Perhaps most importantly, Ray Wylie is clearly having a blast with every line and guitar lick, and that vibrancy shines through and brings the album the life so often lacking on Americana albums these days. All of these factors serve to give these songs lots of replay value, and ultimately, that mileage is what matters most; it matters little how deep and profound a song is on first listen if you’re not compelled to listen to that song months and years later.
There is no crown jewel of the album; rather, Co-Starring has three. “Rock Gods,” featuring Aaron Lee Tasjan, certainly hits the hardest of the three, as Hubbard sings with sorrow about Route 91, Tom Petty’s death, and the brokenness and sadness permeating every corner of our world today. The opener, “Bad Trick,” featuring Ringo Starr, Don Was, Joe Walsh, and Chris Robinson, with its many great observations and little pieces of advice like the line about Nashville, remains the most infectious track on the album. “Drink Till I See Double,” featuring Paula Nelson and Elizabeth Cook, claims the honor of having the most brilliant hook, with “I’m gonna drink till I see double, and take one of you home.” This one is also easily the most stone cold country, for all you strict traditionalists out there.
It’s exciting to see Ray Wylie Hubbard getting his just due and to see such a rootsy album being released and promoted by a label like Big Machine. But the greatest aspect of it all is that Ray Wylie Hubbard didn’t get any on him when he went to Nashville, and hopefully, this record will see him enjoying even more of the recognition and success he has always deserved.
Co-Starring is available today everywhere.